ON THE ROAD
The Audi A3 is the Naomi Campbell of hot hatches. That may sound like an absurd, forced comparison but the parallels are undeniably there.
Like the Brit mega-model, the car has ruled its domain since the 1990s. For years it was the undisputed No 1 and rarely entertained challengers. And yet, like Campbell, when it eventually did arrive the A3 managed to stay as relevant as it has ever been.
That is once more the objective set out for the designers of the fourth generation — which has now officially gone on sale in South Africa. With 63 000 units sold in the country over the past 23 years, expectations will always be high.
But the world has changed since the A3 last had a reset. In simpler times, it might have considered current-cabal mate Volkswagen Golf as its primary competitor.
Today it is joined by rivals from high-end competitors BMW and Mercedes-Benz — with the 1-series and A-Class achieving quick popularity over the past decade.
There are even blows from within its own stable with the Q2, and possibly the Q3, looking to snatch away prospective buyers.
Undeterred, the A3 has arrived with us once more. Still instantly recognisable, like any supermodel it has had to watch its figure and adapt to current trends.
This has manifested itself in a contoured body with plenty of generational essentialities. Which goes double for the S-line version.
Audi says the design was inspired by the Lamborghini Countach — the ubiquitous poster of the teenage motor-obsessed of a certain era. Squint your eyes to the left a little and maybe the influence on the car’s shoulder becomes clearer but really this is mostly marketing jazz.
Looking past that comparison there is still much to like about its looks. Up front we of course have a big Audi grille, as is fashion, accompanied by smaller ones on each corner. To each side are a pair of foxy matrix LED headlights (optional). They enjoy an unusual, axe-type shape and stand out pleasantly. Overall this is a good-looking vehicle, remaining sleeker than its competitors.
Where we must lodge at least one complaint is the exhaust frames, which the German manufacturer has not even attempted to disguise as authentic. Yes, this is common practice in the industry, but these couldn’t even function as toothpick holders.
Inside things get a lot more polarising. Once more we have a supposed Lamborghini influence: the hexagonal vents stand out on the dash like the Urus. There’s been some rumblings from some corners about the oddity of the design but really it’s a ballsy move and helps the A3 stand out.
It also fits in with the broader racing theme of the cockpit. The steering wheel narrows into the gauge cluster, creating the impression that you are helming something closer to a sports car than a family-oriented hatchback. This sensation is enhanced by a neat outlay of dash buttons that resembles the start-up switches on a track car.
Special mention must also be made of the gear lever. Like its frenemy the Golf, the Audi has done away with anything resembling a stick or knob, and replaced it with a small, elevated control you flick up and down. It’s a logical step given current stylings but will nonetheless pain those still mourning the slow death of the manual transmission.
Where the car is undeniably, objectively good is in the drive. With incisive steering, it bites into every corner with sublime effortlessness. Acceleration is as responsive and delivers a solid nip through tight spaces. For the burdened roads of an area like Johannesburg you would be hard-pressed to find a better choice.
While the experience is accentuated by the aforementioned racing setup, its options are more-than-adequate for any city landscape. This was still true of our 1.4l turbo engine (110kW, 250Nm); which can be swapped out for a 2.0l turbo (140kW; 320Nm).
What we have in front of us is a wonderful paradox: a car that maintains its DNA and yet in many ways offers something completely different. With competitors banging at the door, Audi had to take some risks. How you feel about many of them will ultimately come down to your own proclivities. Still, like Naomi Campbell, is there any other name that carries more weight in the segment?